Happy New Year!
Did you know that in Japan what we eat on the first day of the year is bento? This has a special name, “Osechi.” Actually I didn’t have any idea why it’s called that way, so I did a quick research. Apparently Osechi is a simplified expression for “Osechiku（御節供）/ Osekku（お節句）,” which is the term to describe special food prepared to appreciate the harvest.
New Year’s Day, usually referred as “Oshogatsu（お正月）,” is one of the most important days of the year for Japanese people and is celebrated among family members and close relatives. It is a formal event involving proper table setting, rather than a casual fun party that is common in the Western society. I always explain to my Western friends that Oshogatsu in Japan is like Christmas in Europe and Thanksgiving in North America. We (are forced to) stay at home (if you are young and live on your own, you usually go back to your parents’ place to celebrate), have the celebration within the family (quite unusual to visit your friends on the New Year’s Day), and repeatedly eat & rest. We (usually women – no offense, it’s tradition…) prepare Osechi dishes a few days in advance so that we don’t have to work so much on the New Year’s Day itself. Osechi dishes mostly consist of preserved food and hence can last for a week or so.
Traditionally, every dish we put in Osechi has some auspicious meaning or appearance. For example, the combination of red (pink) & white is the colour of celebration in Japan. Kamaboko, the red & white fishcake slices in the centre of the box above, are the symbol of rising sun and is considered to be the most important dish for Osechi. Also the colour of yellow & gold is the sign of prosperity – see the creamy chestnuts in the bottom right corner, which is compared to the golden treasure. The egg cake roll in the top left corner is the sign of preciousness, signifying the hand scrolled documents where we used to store important information. Black beans apparently are the symbol of health. Kazunoko, the herring fish roes, also yellow & gold in colour in the centre of the box, are the sign of prosperity (for descendants), etc. etc. And adapting to the modern living, most of these dishes can be purchased nowadays at any grocery stores. As for me, I cooked a few dishes but bought some as well. All I had to do was to pack everything beautifully, gorgeously and efficiently, which, I’d like to emphasize, requires some skill 😉
This year, my parents joined my Dutch husband, our daughter and myself for the New Year’s celebration at our small Tokyo apartment, and our small family invited our very close friends, a lovely Portuguese family who live in our neighborhood in Tokyo, so that they could have a glimpse of our unique tradition. Eating Osechi all together and having a laugh with our cross cultural conversations, we were able to recreate this special, ceremonious feeling of Japanese New Year that we used to have with my grandparents back in good old days. It has become one of the most memorable Oshogatsu for me this year, sharing it with people I love with my first ever hand-packed Osechi.